saigon vietnam travel guide

Vietnam has been for many years now favourite spot, not only for backpackers because it’s a cheap destination, but also for many other kinds of travellers. Solo travellers, couples, nature lovers, digital nomads and families visiting this beautiful country every year to discover its history and tradition, its amazing landscapes, its delicious food and most important its friendly people. For this time our itinerary in Asia includes the biggest city in Vietnam, Saigon, where we planed to stay about 5 days.

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh city as it has two names is a huge and the most populous city in Vietnam with a population reaching almost 13 million as more and more migrants are moving to the city each year. This number is way bigger than the official of 8 million that was recorded the previous years as the nearby areas in a range of even 70 km are also considered part of the city. In 2019 Saigon is consists of 24 districts and the outrageous number of 8 million motorbikes ride every day in the city.

So why would anybody like to visit this place? Despite its pollution and the traffic that prevents tourists from passing the roads with a peace of mind Saigon has to offer many attractions and unique food as the rest country of Vietnam. If you are into the culture of Asia then head for few days to this amazing city but before visiting it read below what we did and how we enjoyed it, it may trigger the adventure in you thing.

-Day 1-

From the airport

To reach the city from the Tan Son Nhat international airport you can use the yellow bus number 109 (cost 20.000 vnd, less than 1 euro) or the shuttle bus number 49 that costs double. The buses run every 20 min starting from 05.30 am till 12.30 am the next day. The final stop is at 23/9 bus station which is located inside the city near the backpackers street and many hotels and restaurants.

If you prefer to move faster than the bus that takes almost 1 hour, due to the huge traffic during the day, you can catch a taxi instead (cost 180.000 – 300.000 vnd almost 15 euro) or you can always use the Grab (Asia’s Uber). Remember always paying in cash cause if you pay by credit card they charge you plus 3%. That is why I recommend exchanging a small amount of money at the airport and you can always exchange more in the city at a better rate.

Accommodation

The first day of your arrival to Saigon you will be really excited but also exhausted if you have been traveling from Europe or somewhere far away. For us, it took a total of 2 days on the road from the door of our home till the door of our hostel in Vietnam. So don’t rush too much, find your hotel, unpack your stuff, have a shower and enjoy your first day in this unique city. If you haven’t already planned where you will stay we recommend the district 1. Few worthwhile hotels/hostels are, the Like Hostel, 9 Hostel & Bar, Prei Nokor Hostel, Punto Hostel, the Cozi House, Lamo Boutique Hotel, Ailen Garden Hotel, Louis Hostel – Hotel, the Hammock Hotel. You can find also a variety of amazing hotels and home-stays at great rates located outside the district 1 but it will be uncomfortable for your daily transportation. We really enjoyed our stay in our hostel cause we met interesting people and spent a great time together.

Use the link below to find and book your hotel easier with the help of Hotellook.

Useful Info

If you will have to exchange your cash to the local currency, Vietnamese Dong (VND) you should know that there are no exchange booths like in Thailand instead they do all the transactions at the travel agencies or at the jewellery shops. Of course, you won’t see the exchange rate posted anywhere and you have always to ask before proceeding. You should know that most of them will even have worse rate than at the airport so be prepared to search a little bit. I found a very good rate at a jewellery shop opposite the Ben Thanh Market. (extra tip: the more you exchange the best the rate will be).
If you want to move in the city avoid renting motorbike yourself and when you walk be extremely aware of the millions of motorbikes driving through the city. You cannot imagine how crazy drivers Vietnamese can be, they even drive on the pedestrian area. For super cheap transfer use motorbike or taxi Grab service. You can also use the local buses that cost only 5.000 vnd per ride but it just takes forever.

Food and Massage

Our favourite places to eat are near Ben Thanh Market, that’s where you can find all the ‘goodies’. From western style restaurants, street vendors and bars to massage parlours and hotel spas. A place called ‘Street Food Market’ with a big sign is extremely friendly with lots of young people, locals and tourists. It’s very popular cause you can find really good quality Asian food, cheap drinks and a great atmosphere. You can sit there or have a take away. I had my first ‘Banh Mi’ (Vietnamese style sandwich) there and it was delicious.
But if you like really to eat like a local my number one suggestion is a tiny restaurant where you can find only locals inside and its name is ‘Quan Oc Van’. This place is located on 23 Nguyen An Ninh street near the Ben Thanh Market. It’s not easy to find cause it’s so small, not eye catchy and nestled between street vendors and motorbikes, so pay close attention if you want to taste great Vietnamese local sea-food.

This small ‘gem’ offers hobbit-size plastic chairs inside and the cooking takes place outside by two cute aged ladies. The elder one has been cooking there for more than 20 years as locals told me and its a magic to watch how she is preparing the food. Because the restaurant is always full kindly ask the owner to put you somewhere outside like I did and was fitted exactly near the barbeque from where i could see what and how they are cooking.

street food in vietnam
this cute lady is a 5* chef

There is a big choice of shellfish, snails and even balut eggs to try. With different ways to cook them, the food can be ordered grilled, baked or sautéed. If you are there ask a Chai-Tak for a drink. It is a cold flavoured tea with lime and sugar and looks like a mojito. I am sure that a few places are more local and traditional than this. I had an amazing experience cause not only I was in the heart of the action having some kind of a cooking class for free but I also met a few locals who helped me with my order.

Afterwards, you can have some massage at the nearby shops to relax from your tiring day. The prices range from 200.000 vnd (about 9 euro) for 45 min but sometimes you can negotiate the same price for 1 hour. Be careful cause the most massage places, especially in the backpacker area, offer mostly ‘happy ending massages’, except if it’s what you are looking for…
Before heading back to your room don’t forget to grab an amazing smoothie with local fresh fruits from the street, they are amazingly refreshing!

-Day 2-

Good Morning Vietnam! Didn’t you always want to say that?
It’s your first morning in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon (the way I prefer to call it) and for sure you will feel excited. Well, first thing first have a breakfast at your place or find somewhere around you, there are hundreds of them serving western and Vietnamese breakfast. We had booked our accommodation with the breakfast included but about one hour later I was hungry again so I decided to have a Bahn Mi and a coffee, a combo menu that cost me only 1 euro!

Architecture & Museums

If you like the unique buildings and architecture you should check the famous Saigon Central post office, which was constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Right opposite you will see the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the city’s cathedral and few minutes from there you will find the Saigon Municipal Opera House built in 1897 by a French architect.
When you are walking always remember to rehydrate yourself as Saigon’s heat and humidity will make you fill exhausted faster than you think. Try local ice tea and fresh exotic juices waiting for you at every corner of the city. Refreshed? Then head to see some museums.

The must museums in the city are the War Remnants Museum, the Museum of Vietnamese History and the 3D Art Museum for fun lovers.
The War Remnants Museum is one of its kind and its better to schedule the visit when you have available at least 2 hours in front of you. Don’t be fulled it’s not like any other museum. Prepare to have some history lessons and drop some tears. I won’t write here any more details as it takes a whole new article which we will post separately. Just remember that you will find few cute 4th generation war victims that sell hand-crafted stuff. Please don’t forget to support them.
If you are not in the mood to continue after what you witnessed in the war museum then only a beer can fix the rest of your day. Grab a cheap and tasteful Saigon Premium and you will feel better. The beers cost from 15.000 vnd less than 1 euro but it depends where you buy them from.

The Saigon History Museum it’s also quite impressing and you will face a lot of founds from the Stone Age till the late centuries. You will understand better the Asian culture when you step out of there. If you don’t want to get bombarded with more history… you can leave this visit for the next day.

war museum in saigon
beautiful people: 4th generation war victims

By night

As the sun goes down it is time to explore the ‘Bui Vien’ street. It is also called backpackers area as there you will find many cheap restaurants and bars with loud music. If you are more chilled pace type or more eclectic try the Saigon Skydeck where you can have a cocktail on the 52nd floor, a dinner on 51st floor or a coffee on 50th. The prices for the drinks are reasonable for this kind of luxury starting from about 220.000 vnd (about 10 euro). Remember, don’t go too late if you are hungry (kitchen may close after 22:00) and don’t go to early (recommended time after 21:00) if you want to enjoy your cocktail and listen to some good music with an amazing view of the city.

ho chi minh vietnam nightlife
Saigon Skydeck at the Bitexco tower (click for tour)

-Day 3-

If you didn’t wake up for your breakfast it’s ok you deserve some relaxation. But don’t lose the rest of your day! Go have a nice local coffee with concentrated milk and some fried eggs or a bowl of delicious fruits at any restaurant near you to start your day with maximum energy. You will also find egg coffee at some trendy cafes but it’s not really famous in South Vietnam as it originates from the North part.

What to do

If you didn’t visit the history museum the previous day it’s a nice chance to go today. As it’s a bit far away you can get a moto – taxi, Grab is everywhere and it’s super cheap, or if you prefer to walk take a bottle of water with you and be patient while crossing the roads. At the noon time have a hat or jockey with you as it gets very hot. The entrance ticket is only 30.000 vnd and the museum closes at 5.00 pm.
On your way, you will see lots of shops with electronics, smartphones and branded stores with athletics such as Adidas. I visited many of them even the Nikon and Sony stores but to be honest, the prices are same with Europe so it’s not worth it to lose your time. Instead go and book a tour for your next days. We recommend the below three listed tours in and near Saigon:

  • Mekong Delta tour
  • Cu Chi Tunnels
  • City tour by locals from Airbnb experiences
  • Saigon to Dalat and Mui Ne (2 days tour)

You can find more tours in Saigon through Get Your Guide below

Restaurants & Bars

By night I suggest a great dinner at the traditional restaurant called ‘Cuc Gach Quan’ District 1. You need a taxi to get there and it is a little bit pricy but it totally worth it. The food and the atmosphere is great. If you are a couple or a family looking for a delicious and beautiful place don’t hesitate to try it.
Do you like cocktails at reasonable prices? do you enjoy hotel rooftops with views? Then I have the right place for you. At the road of Bui Vien near the homonymous ‘Bui Vien’ hostel, there is a hotel called ‘Duc Vuong’ go inside and get on the 9th floor. You will find their roof garden with an amazing view overlooking the cities skyscrapers. You will love this place. They have a few nice craft beers and a big list of cocktails but you can also have a glorious dinner there.

-Day 4-


Cu Chi tunnels tour

Get ready for your next adventurous day! We booked to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and it was an exciting experience. If you are planning to go, do it from the previous day. Wherever you will book it from, travel agency or at your hotel reception know that the price is around 230,000 vnd per person (about 9 euro) for the big group. The small ones are more expensive and you are transferred with a mini-van instead of a bus. The entrance ticket should be included but the lunch is optional. The distance is only 70km from the city of Saigon but the ride is about 2 hours due to the huge traffic.

We booked to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and it was an exciting experience. If you are planning to go, do it from the previous day. Wherever you will book it from, travel agency or at your hotel reception know that the price is around 230,000 vnd per person (about 9 euro) for the big group. The small ones are more expensive and you are transferred with a mini-van instead of a bus. The entrance ticket should be included but the lunch is optional. The distance is only 70km from the city of Saigon but the ride is about 2 hours due to the huge traffic.

At Cu Chi, we learnt how the Vietcong soldiers were surviving and what technics they were using to protect themselves from the enemy. I also went inside a tunnel and experienced a 100m underground run. It was pretty narrow, hot and scary there and you should definitely avoid it if you are claustrophobic, alternatively, go only for the 20m run.

Vietnamese Food

In the evening I am sure that you will feel hungry. The Vietnamese food is super delicious, nutritious and you can consume anything you wish without being scared of gaining weight. The downside is that it is also very light and you will hungry over and over again. So if you are enthusiastic about the street food as we do and you love the diversity of food through Asia find our recommendations for some real Vietnamese delicacies.

Few popular Vietnamese dishes we have tried:


Nuoc Mam: is not a dish but a fish sauce served across entire Asia and you will find it on every table used sometimes instead of salt.
Pho: the number one dish in Vietnam. Pho is a soup consisting of a salty broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and chicken or beef. Always accompanied by fresh and fragrant laksa leaves.
Com Tam: is a combination of grilled chicken, broken rice (is a traditionally cheaper grade of rice produced by damage in milling), few vegetables and a fried egg on top. Has a lot of alternatives and can be served with beef or pork.
Bun Rieu: crab based soup noodle dish. Consisting of crab meat, beef, rice noodles, tomato, herbs and served with fresh vegetables aside. Tasteful and light.
Banh Mi: Vietnamese famous sandwich. It is a baguette filled with pieces of grilled pork or chicken and various vegetables like cucumber, carrot, coriander, lemongrass plus some chilly sauce. You also can add a fried egg.
Banh Trang Me: Vietnamese cracker. It is an extremely thin, transparent, rice paper roasted and usually served with salads. There are many versions like coconut and sesame, banana and coconut, or with ginger flavour.
Hung Dao Jook: Red bean soup with sugar, coconut and tapioca pearls usually served hot after dinner. Tastes sweet and delicious but a little bit ‘heavy’ for a dessert.
Che Me Den: Sweet soup with black sesame, coconut, rice flour and sugar, served hot after dinner. Light and smooth taste.
Tau Hu Nunc Duong: is a pudding with silken tofu and hot ginger syrup that’s poured over the top. Good breakfast option.

For those who are in the mood to taste something ‘unusual’ and want to challenge themselves go for the following nasty options:

  • Balut Eggs: are fertilised duck embryo eggs of about 15-day old. They are boiled and served in a sweet and sour sauce with laksa leaves, salt and pepper and comes with a small tea spoon. It has a super strong chicken egg flavour and it is really delicious.
  • Giant Snails: really big nasty snails baked in the coals served with chilly sauce inside. For me it was not something special and without the chilly sauce, it’s tasteless. As an alternative, try the small snails that are cooked in coconut sauce. Oh boy they are great!
  • Coconut Worms: a small bowl with wriggling coconut worms (live larvae) inside a fish sauce with chillis. What can be more ‘exotic’ than this? tastes extra spicy if you accidentally catch red chilli, salty due to the fish sauce, a bit sweet and chewy due to the worm. There is a specific way someone must eat it with the chopsticks in order not to get bitten. Fits perfectly with a local beer.
  • Frogs: less scary on this list. Frogs taste like chicken and can be found served in many ways. I had some deep fried frog legs and can say that they are a great snack for a beer also.

You can also have a snake or even meat from a rat that is more common at the Vietnamese countryside and the Mekong Delta but I wouldn’t suggest any of them cause first I don’t know how safe it is and secondly there are more tasty options to have. But if you feel adventurous as I remember they can be found outside the city centre in some remote districts, just ask a local who speaks good English.

PS: Saigon is one of the world’s top 18 cities for street food, taking into account uniqueness of traditional food & drink style, quality of restaurants & bars and diversity of cuisines.

-Day 5-

Shopping

Last day in the city! You can do some shopping and find beautiful souvenirs. Cheap and common souvenirs can be found everywhere on the street and local markets like ‘Ben Thanh’ or you can go for more unique stuff with better quality inside expensive shops near the ‘Bitexco‘ tower. If you cannot carry them with you consider sending them home via the post office. The prices for the shipment starts from around 450.000 vnd for the first kg, after that extra kg is at half price or even cheaper. The sea shipment takes 3 months and the air-mail about 1 month. It’s not a cheap solution so consider it before buying anything bulky.

Tour with a local

For our last day, I decided to book a tour that is different than others we have seen so far. I found it on the Airbnb experiences at half price than it is sold by travel agents. It is a motorbike tour around the city organised by locals. A local student will guide you around the hidden places outside the city centre, show you the Cambodian and Chinese market, visit with you the 300 years old instagramish ‘Thien Hau Temple” and the old neighbourhood where the American soldiers were living during the war. The tour includes a snack and a simple local lunch with a drink.

My favourite thing was that the schedule is flexible and you can request to visit any place within this 4-hour experience. There was also insurance included in the price and a helmet plus a raincoat were provided free. This tour is a win-win situation cause you help students earn some cash, improve they English language and you get off the bitten path and get to know how locals live. Don’t forget, being on a motorbike in Saigon is an experience by itself.

eat like a local saigon
a short cooking lesson while on a tour

Chilling

If you had enough with the Saigonese heat I have a place for you to chill out and cool yourself. It is a rooftop pool located on the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside hotel. The hotel is situated in the city centre near the Bitexco tower and offers an amazing view with an entrance fee of 300.000 vnd (about 11 euro). Grab a drink and enjoy the sunset over the Sai Gon river.

To be honest, we didn’t like what we first saw when we arrived. This chaos of motorbikes, traffic and pollution had me thinking if it was a good idea to visit this city but our last day we didn’t want to leave even if we knew that Vietnam has to offer many more beautiful places like Sapa, Hot An, Dalat or Hanoi. Here the people are friendly, the food is great, there are places open 24 hours and at some point, you will get used to the traffic.

If you plan to extend your stay in the city don’t forget to check the below tours we missed. Hope you will enjoy your trip to Saigon as we did and don’t hesitate to contact us for any info.

Cheap Mekong Delta tour on bikes

Traditional Puppet show with dinner cruise

Cooking class & Benh Tranh Market tour

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